Apparently at the age of seven I just announced I wanted to learn the piano, and at school I was always involved in musical productions.
But I never particularly liked opera. Then when I was in year 10 in 1993 I saw a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the Opera House.
I was in the second row. Because I was so close to the stage, and the opera is Wagner’s only comedy, I got a sense of the theatre from it. I think that’s what captured me. I thought: I want to have a go at that.
By that time I was a student at the Conservatorium High School in Sydney. I dropped the piano and started singing lessons in 1994.
About a year later, I was thrust out of the closet when my parents discovered I was gay. I was 17 and still at high school and I didn’t know how to deal with it, let alone with my parents.
I decided that I would move out, so I left home in St Ives and went to live for a year at the Salvation Army hostel on Crown Street in Surry Hills.
I was considered youth at risk. It was rather incongruous being in a hostel with hardened street kids, and being this guy doing his singing practice in the common room.
It also was an eye-opening experience -“ at one point one of the residents burnt their room down. But my time there really helped me develop and grow up really fast. In a strange way I ended up enjoying it there.
It took a while for my parents to get used to me being gay, but they are much better about it now.
After high school, I studied at the Conservatorium of Music. I also performed part-time with the Opera Australia extra chorus, which basically supplements the full-time chorus.
I kept working there in 2003, the year after I finished university. In that year, I was cast in the role of Apprentice in Die Meistersinger -“ the same opera that had sparked my interest 10 years previously. So there was a real sense of coming full circle.
That same year I also sang at a 25thanniversary concert for the Joan Sutherland Society in Sydney, which Dame Joan Sutherland was at.
I got to meet her afterwards and we talked for a little while and she said she had enjoyed my singing. I saw her again at a function a couple of weeks later and we spoke briefly.
There is a scholarship given out by Opera Australia with Dame Joan Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonynge, to someone who is working for the company.
I think Dame Joan heard along the grapevine that I was hoping to go overseas but didn’t have the money. My mum rang me on the train one day and said, Joan Sutherland has just rung the house. Do you know what that’s about?
It turned out she was calling to tell me I had been awarded the scholarship, which you can’t apply for. It was one of those in the right place at the right time moments.
I used the money to go first to Berlin. I arrived there in August 2003 and did some German language study. It was my 25th birthday while I was there, and my first time overseas, so I let my hair down a little bit.
After three months in Berlin I went to London at the end of 2003. I got a call from one of the coaches I was working with saying a company called Diva Opera needed a tenor. I sang for them one afternoon and was offered two roles.
The company travelled around Europe, from France to Venice and even Moscow. During the Venice stay we also performed on a cruise, and that’s where I met American opera great Marilyn Horne, who was giving master classes.
After the class I asked her to sign my score and she said: Stay and have dinner with us. I ended up auditioning in New York for her summer school in California. I got a place and studied there last year.
Before that, I had got a position with the English Touring Opera, so I am going back to the UK at the end of the month to work with them. I am in Australia until then, and I am performing in Sydney this week.
The standard of what we do in Australia is quite high, but we don’t have the number of small companies to give that break to young singers like me. That’s the opportunity I have over in Europe.
I’m still daunted by the idea of opera being a difficult career choice. You do auditions and you start to wonder what’s coming next. The fact is there are far more good people trying to do it than there are jobs. In that sense it’s competitive.
But you just have to keep the faith. When you get on stage it’s all worthwhile.
Interview by Ian Gould
Brad Cooper will perform with Byron Watson tomorrow, Friday 20 January, 7:30pm, at the Actors College of Theatre and Television, 505 Pitt Street, Sydney, near Railway Square. Entry by donation.